Explaining the Different Usage of ‘tú’ and ‘usted’

How Explaining the Origin of Usted Can Help Students

When students are faced with the concept of subject-verb agreement and the various subject pronouns in Spanish, the fact that there are four ways to say you in Spanish can be confusing. Unraveling that confusion is much more difficult than avoiding it in the first place.

This lesson plan is designed to help teachers explain how there came to be four forms of you are in Spanish, in the simplest terms and to make students comfortable with the fact that each of them has its own verb ending. By far, the most difficult piece of this puzzle is why usted and ustedes are second-person in meaning but require the verbs in the third-person.

Once students have been exposed to the six grammatical persons and learned the subject pronouns, it is time to address and usted. Most students have no problem with the idea of a polite and a familiar form of address. In terms of usage, I usually compare using with being on a first-name basis with someone and usted as being on a Mr. or Ms. basis.

In order to explain why usted is second person in meaning but requires third-person verbs, I teach a little history of the language combined with some social history, which I’ll share with you teachers who may not know this.

At one time, a few hundred years ago, Spanish did not distinguish formal from familiar you with a particular pronoun. This was awkward, since was acknowledged as an intimate form of address and no person considering him or herself superior in social standing would tolerate being addressed in a familiar way by a servant. Social inferiors therefore, used the expression Vuestra Merced, meaning Your Mercy or Your Grace, in an indirect fashion, as if averting their eyes from their masters.

Of course, if you use Your Mercy as a subject pronoun, it is third person. Consider these expressions in English: “Does Your Grace wish to dine now?” or “Your Mercy eats too little!” Notice that these require third-person verbs in English. Over time, with constant use, Vuestra Merced came to be pronounced as the modern usted. In fact, until very recently, it was common to see usted abbreviated, not only as Ud. but also as Vd.

When students grasp the foregoing, they are usually ready to understand that vosotros is the plural of (in Spain) and that ustedes is both the familiar and formal plural in the Americas, which comes as a bit of a relief.


  • Author's more than 20 years experience teaching and translating Spanish.